Epigraph

If given the chance, this quote will be attached as an epigraph to my thesis:

One makes God’s Word into something impersonal, objective, a doctrine — instead of its being the voice of God that you shall hear… And one relates impersonally (objectively to this impersonal thing); and at the peak of a culture of the world, at the head of the cultured public, scholarly research, one asserts defiantly that this is earnestness and culture. If possible, we pityingly put those personal subjective wretches into the corner!

Kierkegaard – For Self-Examination

The Objectification of the Body

Silicon Valley, not content with external devices, has pivoted to the self as its next great frontier. And in order for its vision of your body to take hold, it needs you to speak its language. Dieting is no longer a necessary problem of vanity, as it has been historically termed, but a problem of knowledge and efficiency—a rhetorical shift with broad implications for how people think of themselves. Where bodies might have previously been idealized as personal temples, they’re now just another device to be managed, and one whose use people are expected to master. We’re optimizing our performances instead of watching our figure, biohacking our personal ecosystem instead of eating salads.

“The Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger Language of Dieting”

When I think of Kierkegaard’s distinction between objectivity and subjectivity, I’m most often thinking of knowledge, and how we, as individuals treat those objects of knowledge with which we interact. I wonder, though, if the objective/subjective divide can be applied elsewhere — not only internally, but externally.

Here would be a prime example: the body. The ever-growing tech industry demands that our very selves be quantified, measured in bits, and analyzed for optimization. This was  and is true for Facebook, the ad industry, Amazon, and so on; now it seems to be true for how we think of our very bodies. The human person, body and mind, is simply a complex set of algorithms — code that can be re-written with the right amount of objective understanding.

Maybe Kierkegaard’s objective/subjective distinction can be appropriated here, in defense against the quantification (and thus, the objectification) of our own bodies. [An aside: we often speak of objectification and bodies as if the only way to objectify bodies is “sexually.” Although I am not denying this is a reality, it seems as if the current health trends in tech show that we are moving towards the objectification of our own bodies.] We are not computers. We are not programs. We are whole human beings, with wills and hearts and minds and bodies, more than the sum of our parts. Therefore, instead, maybe we need a subjectification of the body: a being-in and enjoying-of the body.

What is reading for?

What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.

Joseph Epstein – “The Bookish Life

My struggle with reading is my desire to attain absolute knowledge. I want to be “immensely knowledgeable or clever” and “learned.” The reality is often the opposite when it comes to reading — we rarely fully retain the information we take in. If I’m lucky, I’ll remember a snip from a passage and where it’s located in a book. Reading, instead, is for gaining wisdom, for being formed a certain way. Not so that our objectivity is changed (i.e., our distanced knowledge), but so that our subjectivity is changed. We need the our perception of the world to be shifted, and our actions toward the world and toward others to move in response to what we read.

Know-How and Technology


Reducing knowledge to know-how and doing away with thought leaves us trapped by an impulse to see the world merely as a field of problems to be solved by the application of the proper tool or technique, and this impulse is also compulsive because it cannot abide inaction. We can call this an ideology or we can simply call it a frame of mind, but either way it seems that this is closer to the truth about the mindset of Silicon Valley.

The trouble with this way of seeing the world is that it cannot quite imagine the possibility that some problems are not susceptible to merely technical solutions or, much less, that some problems are best abided. It is also plagued by hubris—often of the worst sort, the hubris of the powerful and well-intentioned—and, consequently, it is incapable of perceiving its own limits.

Zuckerberg’s Blindness and Ours– L.M. Sacasas

I wonder if a connection can be made back to Kierkegaard here on his distinction between objectivity and subjectivity. In CUP, although he is specifically writing about our relationship to Christian existence, he writes:


In a logical system, nothing must be taken on that has a relation to life itself, nothing that is not indifferent to existence. The infinite advantage over all other thinking held by the logical, by being objective, is limited in turn by the fact that, seen subjectively , it is a hypothesis, it is a hypothesis just because it is indifferent to life in the sense of actuality.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 94- Johannes Climacus

Kierkegaard is writing here on the inability of humans to objectify existence, and to subsume existence itself to some logical system that we can somehow control and understand. The Hegelians of his day spent their time on speculative metaphysics, on grasping reality as it really is. The thought was that the building of a speculative system would allow for absolute understanding. I wonder if the same is true of our current techno-modern situation. We cannot fathom a scenario where all knowledge, all problems, all of existence itself could not one day be subsumed under our technological prowess.

That’s why I think we don’t need to get rid of individualism — we just need a better one. We need an individualism that recognizes the necessity of subjective knowledge; one that doesn’t assume that objectivity (of the kind found in our relentless desire for technological solutions to humanity’s problems) is the only valid sphere of knowledge.

Objectivity is Disinterested

In what will be a key passage for my thesis, Kierkegaard writes on the nature of doubt:

Reflection is disinterested. Consciousness, however, is the relation and thereby is interest, a duality that is perfectly and with pregnant double meaning expressed in the word ‘interest’ (interesse [being in between]). Therefore, all disinterested knowledge (mathematics, esthetics, metaphysics) is only the presupposition of doubt. As soon as the interest is canceled, doubt is not conquered but is neutralized, and all such knowledge is simply a retrogression. Thus it would be a misunderstanding for someone to think that doubt can be overcome by so-called objective thinking. Doubt is a higher form than any objective thinking, for it presupposes the latter but has something more, a third, which is interest or consciousness.

This is from Johannes Climacus, or De Omnibus Dubitandum Est (which means Everything Is to Be Doubted). This unfinished work of Kierkegaard’s is written in narrative form, and would have been a precursor to his later works written under the Johannes Climacus pseudonym. Both of those other works of Kierkegaard’s will function as the backbone of the primary sources I use in my thesis (along with that book on his epistemology by M.G. Piety).

As far as I have found, there is no clearer passage that Kierkegaard wrote which touches on, not only what it means to doubt, but also the actual function of objective and subjective knowledge (he builds his understanding of subjectivity later, in Concluding Unscientific Postscript). This is sort of his first step in that direction, and he makes the case here that we need a subtle shift in how we understand “objective knowledge.”

Doubt, he says, cannot be “conquered” by objective knowledge — rather, doubt is “neutralized.” Why does he parse this out? Because is necessarily an interested stance toward the subject that is being doubted. Objectivity, on the other hand, is disinterested in its subject. In other words, knowing a subject objectively necessarily removes the knower sufficiently far away from the subject so that the knower can reflect on the subject abstractly. Objective thinking, in fact, requires this to be the case, because being interested (existentially speaking, “interest” is better understood as being emotionally or spiritually or otherwise vested in the outcome of something) in the subject leads to bias, and humans, by definition, know a something objectively while also being biased in the outcome of whether a claim is true or not.

That’s why only mathematics and tautologies fall within the realm of true objective knowledge — the knower can effectively and easily remove oneself from the equation, so to speak. Ethico-religious knowledge, on the other hand, cannot be known objectively because those kinds of truths are existentially meaningful. We are interested in those truths, vested in those outcomes.

All of that to say: I’ll need to argue for a subtle shift in the meaning of both objectivity and subjectivity if I am to make my case effectively.

Objective Knowledge, Reversed

Kierkegaard’s only valid form of certain, objective knowledge is in the realm of logic (or its extension of mathematics). Theoretically, approximate objective knowledge can be gained in the realm of history and science, but it’s only ever approximate, so it can’t be said to be “certain,” and is always subject to revision. M.G. Piety details SK’s distinct categories of knowledge in her book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralistic Epistemology, and those are the only two realms of objective knowledge she can distinctly identify.

Interestingly, McCombs addresses how this situation has reversed in contemporary culture in The Paradoxical Rationality of Søren Kierkegaard:

Although the Hegelian System is now dead and gone [what Kierkegaard spent much of his time lambasting], systematizing is still alive and well. For example, scientific naturalists claim to know that all reality is material reality, or that all reality is to be known, to the extent that it can be known, not in diverse ways but exclusively by the public methods of mathematical and empirical sciences. (70)

This is an inversion of SK’s notion of what counts as truly objective knowledge — math and logic provide objective knowledge according to Kierkegaard, but they are not the limit of what is knowable. This, in my opinion, is a large reason why we experience a large amount of doubt about any religious or ethical truth claims. We have accepted the cultural claim re: immanence — that we can only know what is provable empirically or logically because we cannot empirically or logically prove anything exists outside of the material world.